Taking the decision of learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai was pretty easy, making it into practice a whole different deal.
“Don’t be afraid, you are in China!” When Chen laoshi (teacher Chen) delivered such a statement to the class on the first day of my Mandarin course in Shanghai, it did sound pretty unusual. Until I understood that all she meant was to encourage us to practice our newly learned Mandarin Chinese straight away in the streets.
“This is exactly how I like it,” I thought. “Interacting with the natives.”
With all this in mind, I made it to the local market of my neighborhood, ready to sport the few Chinese words in I had just studied during my class.
Easier said than done, learning Mandarin in Shanghai proved all but a piece of cake.
At every word I tried to communicate, I was met with a blank look, and when I reported my lack of success to my teacher, her reaction wasn’t really reassuring: “Of course they didn’t understand, if you get a tone wrong, you’ll say a different word!”
That was my first experience with the four tones that make Mandarin impenetrable to new learners.
I have always been fascinated by Asian cultures, and being the Chinese one of the most ancient ones, the Country of the Middle (Zhong Guo, 中国) was naturally going to be my next expat destination.
As it proudly boasts 5000 years of age, it goes without saying that learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai gives a much better access to the most intimate nuances of Chinese culture and lifestyle.
Although natives like to remark that memorizing characters (han zi, 汉字) does not mean “drawing” but “writing”, to me they still look like tiny images, and it helps me a lot when I can connect them with the origin of their creation.
For example, the character for “good” looks like this 好 and symbolizes a woman with a baby. The reason? In the ancient society the woman with the baby was consider precious.
After visiting Beijing and Shanghai, my perception of China was better than I had expected. Beside the blatant signs of globalization, such as the glitzy skyscrapers, lies the true nature of Chinese culture, a colorful array of ceramics, tiny tea cups, inlaid swords, and the quirkiest insect markets.
What captivated me since my first week of learning Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai was the wide multiculturalism given by the presence of foreigners from all over the world and especially by the tangle of different ethnic groups populating China’s mainland.
Despite being so multicultural, however, before learning Mandarin my start in Shanghai has been much tougher than I expected due to the barrier of the language.
The first burden I stumbled on was the fact that written and spoken Mandarin bear no resemblance, so it was impossible to look up unknown terms in the dictionary, and apart from road signs and metro lines, everything is written only in characters, from products’ instructions to vegetables’ names.
Spoken Mandarin Chinese is by no means easier: the presence of four tones (which to me sound pretty much the same) makes it very common to misunderstand or say the wrong term.
As soon as I realized there was no way I could pick up any word, my first reaction was one of despair, and giving up on my semester abroad crossed my mind more than once.
Fortunately, I’m not very inclined to admit defeat, so I stuck to my original plan and registered to university determined to learn Chinese once and far all.
Despite the hardship of the language, the number of foreign students signing up to Chinese class increases by the day.
On my first semester Chinese language course, my class boasted 14 nationalities, from Turkish, to Kazakh, to Russian, to Korean. Apart from the intriguing sample of humanity I could enjoy every morning, it was particularly challenging to see how each and every one of them had their own way to absorb a foreign language, from not understanding to purpose of the verb “to be” of our outlandish Russian classmate, to the introduction of nasal vowels by the French team.
Although the course was English-Chinese, not many of us were comfortable in English, and the room, soon labeled “tea house” by our laoshi, inevitably became a picturesque mosaic of human nature.
“You’ll make a lot of friends in less than no time,” told me my local guide in Beijing while unearthing tales around the Forbidden City.
As the Mandarin lessons started, I kept wondering how on earth I could meet so many people if I had no idea even on how to introduce myself. It didn’t take me long to understand her statement. From within the university, one of the most common activities is language exchange, namely Chinese students who want to improve their English skills provide free classes to foreign students who enrolled to learn Mandarin.
Apart from having fun while studying, this is also they best way to make friends. I have three language partners and our classes take place in cafes and restaurants over a cup of Jasmine tea or a portion of chǎo miàn, 炒面 (stir-fried noodles), as well as along the rivers of the water towns surrounding Shanghai’s territory.
Despite my initial panic, I’m glad I took the challenge.
Our Mandarin class kicked off with some Chinese characters (hanzi) and basic Mandarin phrases to be able to at least start a conversation.
Many people wonder how to learn Chinese, and my first and best piece of advice is to do it continuously, not to interrupt, talk to people and practice writing and reading. Now, to read an easy newspaper article you need to know at least 3,000 (out of 5,000) Chinese characters.
Learning Mandarin Chinese characters is way less straightforward than you might think.
Practice a lot. For every new Chinese character we learned, our teacher asked us to write a full page of it. At every lesson we would learn from five to ten characters and at every class the teacher would do a small dictation exercise mixing old and new Chinese characters. For sure one of my best tips on how to learn Chinese is absolutely to study Chinese alphabet, which is not our typical alphabet but more ideograms.
As soon as I learned some basic Chinese phrases I practiced it in the streets. I would talk to shop assistants, street vendors, bargain prices, made friends in university. The more I talked with locals, the more I was willing to do it. Chinese people appreciate very much when someone tries learning Mandarin Chinese and they listen, talk and made the effort to understand even when you make mistakes.
Talking to people is useful because alongside learning Chinese characters, it’s very important to practice the four tones that make Mandarin Chinese very difficult to speak.
Apart from learning Mandarin Chinese, during the year I spent in China I have acquired a new personal attitude, such as adopting the philosophy of being patient and letting go.
I learned very quickly how to deal with the reality of children and adults alike staring at me in disbelief because of my foreign look, I often find myself in the awkward situation of preferring eating with chopsticks rather than using fork and knife, and I have replaced my post-prandial espresso with a teapot of TieGuanyin tea.
Chinese have been cultivating the art of making tea for thousands of years, so I deemed appropriate to get involved in the national pride of my hosting country. I was initiated to the ritual of tea tasting and fighting (an old practice in which customers challenge the sellers with their own tea) by Yu Bin, a friend of mine whose dream is to open a tea shop himself, and since then I became addicted.
My second semester flew as fast as the first one, and even though I had to leave China, I always remember the year I spent in Shanghai as my best year abroad.